Brendan W. Clark ’21 spent several weeks searching through the digital archives of Trinity’s Watkinson Library to research his project, “Trinity College and the Influenza Pandemic of 1918,” which is now the first exhibit in the Watkinson Library Virtual Museum.
“I’ve been interested in Trinity’s history for a long time, and I saw this as another opportunity to engage with that history from a particular angle that connects to the situation we’re in right now,” said Clark, a double-major in history and public policy and the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, The Trinity Tripod. While completing the spring 2020 semester at home in Massachusetts in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Clark conducted research for this exhibit by remotely accessing the Watkinson’s digital repository—which includes every Tripod edition since 1904, college yearbooks, student handbooks, meeting minutes, and more—in addition to the Hartford Courant’s online archives.
The idea to research Trinity’s history during the 1918 influenza pandemic came from Associate Professor of History Jeffrey Bayliss. “This work helps to shed light on the ways that pandemic impacted the Trinity community and the Hartford area,” Bayliss said. “Brendan did a very fine job, and very quickly as well, showing his true resourcefulness as a history major.”
Clark began by entering a series of search terms into databases and reviewing the results to narrow his collection. “Part of the challenge was trying to find incidences when they didn’t call it ‘influenza,’ but just ‘the illness,’” he said. Among the categories of materials cited in the exhibit are administrative actions and publications, including references to a quarantine impacting students in the Student Army Training Corps, and obituaries of alumni from the Tripod and Courant.
The most surprising thing Clark discovered was how infrequently the pandemic was mentioned in official records. As Bayliss explained, “On the whole, the work of trying to explore the history of the 1918 pandemic is fraught with a certain amount of frustration over a paucity of information from the time. The pandemic hit right in the midst of the First World War, and most of the combatant nations were loath to publicize how disruptive it was becoming in their ongoing efforts to mobilize and fight, for fear of emboldening the enemy.”
Clark said he plans to continue researching this subject when he is able to look through the complete archives in person at the Watkinson. “There may be student journals that are not digitized,” he said. “That’s what’s missing from the record; there just aren’t a great deal of personal materials or opinions.”
In light of his findings, Clark said he is acutely aware of a need for documenting the current COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the college community. “It’s clear to see how important it is to write down our thoughts as they are happening,” he said. “I think the wealth of material available 100 years from now to trace the story of Trinity in 2020 from the first sign of trouble to whenever we emerge will be really well catalogued.”
Clark conducted the project on his own time and not for course credit. He received assistance from Director of Special Collections and Archives Christina Bleyer and College Archivist and Manuscript Librarian Eric Stoykovich of the Watkinson. “Brendan did a really nice job in his research, looking at everything and finding some really interesting things about how Trinity dealt with the 1918 pandemic. The subject is perfect for an online exhibit, and so timely. I am thrilled to have this as the first exhibit for the virtual museum,” Bleyer said. “We are working on several other exhibits to add to our virtual museum. I am working on an exhibit about the lemon squeezer and our college archivist, Eric Stoykovich, is working on an exhibit for the 50th reunion of the Class of 1970.”
Located on the main floor of the Raether Library and Information Technology Center, the Watkinson Library serves as a public research library, the rare book and special collections of the Trinity College Library, and the repository of the college archives. It contains more than 175,000 printed volumes, ranging in date from the 15th century to the present. Bleyer added that Trinity has been working to digitize its archives for more than 10 years. “Right now, when we’re all home, it’s great to have access online,” she said. To search the Trinity College Archives, click here. To browse the Trinity College Digital Repository, click here.
The College Archives is now collecting stories about what it’s like being part of the Trinity community during the current pandemic and welcomes submissions of video, audio, text, and photographs. To submit materials, use this form.